The last two weeks in Australia has seen outcomes from an election which some might argue has shifted the leadership landscape and heightened expectations. For those defeated in the election, there have been reappraisals of the way forward and post-mortems underway of what happened and why.
One early conclusion is that it has shown what happens if you leave gaps in representation and fail to listen to communities. Another has been the realisation of opportunity for individuals to take a lead without waiting to be asked or invited in as has been the ways of former years, class-based systems and established norms.
The breakdown of a two-party preferred binary landscape has been particularly noteworthy.
When nothing is changing it sometimes feels as if it never will. In contrast, the outcomes of rapid change at a period like this gives a demonstration of how quickly ideas and beliefs can become outdated and irrelevant. Our modern world demands a contemporary narrative of diversity, equity and inclusion.
Recent events have given a demonstration of how empathy, compassion and authenticity have become paramount in leadership. This shift in emphasis has been a feature over a longer period during the pandemic and the wider current global uncertainties and challenges.
There has been a realisation that our political landscape has become post-binary, and locally focussed on issues that really matter to people, who have voiced their needs. The same may well be true of our universities right now.
After a fractured and delicate relationship with government, some might see now as an opportunity to build new relationships. Politics has become non-binary and arguments of a re-establishment of a binary system, within and between universities, might look equally out of date. The same might be true of our striving for gender equity, diversity and inclusion in our sector.
For a long time, we have seen gender equity as tightly focused on seeking a closing of the gender gap between men and women. That remains a priority given the World Economic Forum currently sees a 132-year journey to parity.
We are fully committed to the closing of that gap and shared a stage when 9 NSW universities and research institutes came together for a HEDx Live Event in Sydney last week in which we all featured in a panel discussion.
But in interacting with a live and online audience we also shared a more nuanced, contemporary and 21st century interpretation of this issue. You can view a highlights reel of the event including inputs from leaders of all partnering institutions in the link here.
Intersectionality means we must perceive our striving for equity and inclusion beyond the interests of just women compared to men. The needs of women of colour, of transgender women, of women with disability, are all part of a contemporary and nuanced re-interpretation of the complexity of the modern equity agenda.
Universities are homes of innovation, change, leadership excellence and new ideas. Increasingly, we now need leaders who are empathetic, compassionate and bold. But we also need leaders who really understand the more nuanced aspects of the full complexity of the equity, diversity and inclusion agenda and appreciate the benefits of cultural pluralism.
We need leaders who are committed to closing the gender gap, and quickly. We also need leaders who can lead debate, ensure representation, take action, and bring about change in all the nuanced aspects of equity, diversity and inclusion as it now plays out in a contemporary university.
We will know we have succeeded in our commitments to intersectional equity and inclusion when we no longer run women in leadership programs in isolation, write discrete disability action plans, or need a Reconciliation Action Plan with an overly narrow focus on Indigenous inclusion, separately from all of the other dimensions of a truly inclusive culture and access to power.
We have the potential and responsibility in universities to become sought out by other sectors as exemplars of intersectional inclusion, and be leading contributors to climate change and all of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
It is fantastic that Western Sydney University leads the world at present in THE Impact rankings and that Australia punches above its weight against all goals, and those concerning equity and inclusion in particular.
If we can work across the sector collaboratively, celebrate what we are good for rather than what we are good at, and argue our case to others based on what we all can do rather than what some of us need, there is a new narrative and opportunity to lead in contemporary Australian universities.
Going about it in that new post-binary way can fill the gap in what our student bodies and workforces need and expect compared to what they might have been served in the past. This lens of true inclusion and fostering collaboration rather than competition can forge a successful future for universities and the communities we serve.
First published in Campus Review on 1st June 2022
Emeritus Professor Martin Betts, Co-Founder of HEDx
Professor Patricia Davidson, VC of University of Wollongong
Professor Brigid Heywood, VC of University of New England